I was 15 years old, and already making a name for myself as a singer and fledgling song writer. I was under the wing of some of the best folk music writers and performers New York had to offer. Among them was my mentor, Fred Neil, who also mentored many young song writers, including David Crosby and Stephen Stills. These folk musicians were snowbirds who found the perfect winter nesting site on the warm sand by Biscayne Bay, in an art colony called Coconut Grove. The rest of the new culture of the mid 1960s would come to know it as, simply, The Grove.
The Flick was an upscale coffee house, with red felt, embossed, wall paper. It had Tiffany style, stain glass, hanging lamps, and marble topped tables. Framed, French impressionist prints decorated the walls, where Max Launer, and his wife, ran the place like a strictly-for-profit, tight ship. It was located on the edge of the University of Miami, at the tip of Coral Gables, and on the other side of Dixie Highway from The Grove.
I remember the pinging, popping, crunching sound of coral gravel under the car's tires, as my mother pulled into the parking area. It was behind a small commercial complex. A naked light bulb illuminated the back door to The Flick's kitchen. It was the same as so many nights before. I'd get out, grab my guitar case and head for that little light, as my mother walked around to the front entrance.
The South Florida winter evening was of no consequence. It wasn't really weather at all; not distracting; just mild and cool. I'd enter the kitchen, put my guitar in the pantry closet, and head for the coffee machine. My mother would have been settling in behind one of the back tables, by the window. These tables were set aside for the performers, and for my chaperoning Mom. It was where she charmingly held court; the exquisite, alabaster and raven Countessa, soon to be engulfed in beaming attention from all the young male musicians, who sang quite a bit better for her presence.
As I emerged from the kitchen, with two cups of the most delicious coffee in Miami, I'm sure I looked like the typical beatnik-type folk and blues singer. Black fishnet stockings, black spike heels, black turtle neck, synched 20 inch waistline under a loose, rust colored wool, sleeveless shift. I wore large hoop earrings, and a very, very long, pubic teasing string of beads. When I performed, I'd have to toss the beads over my shoulder to not scratch the mirror finish of my guitar. As I carried our coffee to join my mother at the back of the room, little did I know that, in just a few minutes, the paradigm of that meticulously cultured fashion look would be happily shattered, forever.
I was engulfed in tuning, as well as permeated by the larger picture I inhabited. The renaissance had already begun. It was a fragrant, steamy stew. The young, energetic artist characters were in place; poised within all the artistic enclaves across the United States, Canada, and England. We could feel it cooking, gaining momentum, blowing steam like a driving train strum on a twelve string guitar. We knew it was ready to boil over, and no one was about to turn down the flame.
It was with this big picture intensity, and concentration, that I tuned my guitar. I was there, but also in New York, and in my room at home, and somewhere in San Francisco, all at the same time. These places existed only within the context of a creative time and space. I lived, we all lived, nearly exclusively, in an alternate reality of the right brain hemisphere. I had been raised there, and these people recognized this. They saw how fast I learned, so they took me in as their prodigy. My learning was a kind of new sport; a game of "try to stump the kid", or taking bets on how fast I'd learn a song or guitar feat. The learning games extended to out of towners, painters, sculptors, and dolphin trainers.
I tuned my guitar while standing on an unlimited world; trying to tune up in the machine cacophony of that noisy kitchen. The refrigerator was in the key of A, the expressio machine steamed a descending range from G down to D and a half, the vent fan was somewhere between B and C, and I was standing facing right up against the wall, using it's hardness to bounce the sound of my strings up to my straining ears; going for A 440. I turned around with a perfectly in tune strum, and was walloped hard in the eyes by what I saw.
I'll never forget what happened in my mind at that moment. It was like stepping from a pitch black room into the snow-blind white light of a crystal bright Canadian winterscape. I was stunned by the beauty of this absolutely foreign creature, who barely touched ground as she lightly clicked onto the vinyl tile kitchen floor. I locked on her face first; perfectly proportioned, perfect skin, immaculately clean, straight blonde hair and... OH MY GOD, WHAT WAS SHE WEARING?!? Her dress had stepped out of a renaissance painting, but was cut off just above the knee, and a loose, muted silver buckled belt hung below her waistline. Just like the paintings of royal ladies of old. She looked as though she stepped from the pages of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The dress had just enough fullness of material to be pulled in by the belt, forming perfect pleats; whispering the hint of her boy-like thin torso. The material was white, with little flecks of silver, not quite silver lame', but alluding to metallic or snow crystal sparkle. Her silver shoes had squared toes and small, but not wobbly, princess heels. They were a fraction of the height of mine. My eyes rang with the clash of my absolute fashion opposite standing before me. But, I knew it was far more than just fashion. She came from a whole nuther planet. No blonde looked like that, not even Marianne Faithful. It's a good thing my self esteem was so strong. I know my mouth did not hang open, but it might as well have done. Instead, my face lit up as an ear to ear corn grin spread over my face. She said, in a voice like you use for a child,
Joni shook hands like she was poking through a small opening in an invisible wall between us. Her arm first took her hand to the middle of her body, then extended it toward me, exactly as if there was only one small window to reach through. She had the appearance of being open and self protective at the same time. As much as I noticed about her, I too was being scanned, like a full body MRI. She didn't just look at you. It was a photograph, an X-ray, and six months of psycho analysis compressed into a few seconds. It made me see myself more clearly than I had ever done before. It was as though she pulled my own vision into her eyes, and made me see myself as she saw me; without a word.
Her silent perception caused self awareness in others; exactly as her songs would do in words. All this happened in-between words. She held her head tipped slightly downward when she spoke, her hair angling forward, drawing me close in toward that inviting invisible wall.
It was Ron Kickasola who first educated the rest of us as to the voracity of Joni's music and poetry. He was one of several musicians on the roster of permanently employed folk singers at The Flick. He was also a music major at the University of Miami, and second chair viola in its symphony. He taught me how to play the guitar in a way which implied all the instruments in an orchestra. His guitar arrangements for folk songs sounded like symphonies. He once set the Yeats poem, The Wandering Angus, to music, and, to this day, I think it's one of the most beautiful melodies and guitar arrangements ever written. He was a wiry figure of 27, who stood about five eight, with haunting brown eyes, black hair, hollowed cheeks, and a neat van dyke beard. He looked a moderately handsome version of Abraham Lincoln, and, like Joni, he was a Scorpio.
Kickasola had the most formal musical training of all the folk singers in the Grove. He didn't live in the Grove, proper, but he was still considered part of the community. Ron had perfect pitch, and soon became the man who wrote all of Joni's lead sheets. I remember Joni sitting across the table from him, singing her melody, and he'd write out in notes fast, as though he were taking short hand dictation. He used a calligrapher's pen, and wrote the words in Old English elegance. Joni's publishing company was called Gandalf Music, and his penmanship resembled the rune writing of the elfin kings. He was a perfect scribe for her new mythologies.
A few nights into Joni's performance stay at The Flick, Ron, who usually walked around looking like he were chiseled in stone, or perhaps like a walking, cardboard, life size cut out of an ancient photograph of Abe Lincoln, suddenly came to life. He completely broke character! He rushed back into the kitchen, squawking out words, saying, "She good, she's really good, you have to listen to her!!!! You have to really listen to her!!! Come out here right now!!!" His eyes were wide open! His mouth was wide open! He was flailing, chicken flapping his arms up and down, squawking all through the kitchen! He grabbed me, grabbed everyone by the arm, drug us through the swinging door, and made us all stand in the cramped little space, behind the small wall that blocked the light from the kitchen when the waitresses came through. The tiny space was right next to the stage at the back wall, so we were about six feet away from her. My trust of Ron, as a mentor, and my faith in his sophisticated comprehension of music structure, his formal education in poetry and English literature, all led me to go into my highwire focus, right brained, remember everything I see and hear mode. It didn't matter whether I understood anything, my brain cells were given the order to digest everything, forever, to be comprehended at a later date.
There we were, in a space about four feet by three feet. It was Ron, Vince Martin, Mike Smith, Bobby Ingram, and me. Decades later, Mike Smith won a Tony for his music for the New York play, a revival of The Grapes Of Wrath. Bobby Ingram had been in a folk group with David Crosby and David's brother, Ethan. Vince Martin had made an album with Fred Neil called, Tear Down The Walls, which was a major hit in the folk world two years previous. Yet, even with all that musical ability, it was the vigilant little Ron, who had to beat these big guys about the head, drag them by the arm, and force them to listen.
The reason Ron grabbed me from the kitchen was because I rarely went out front to listen. I was always warming up for the next show, almost immediately after I finished my last show. I was always doing guitar scales and learning a new song, and trying to play as well, or better, than all those extraordinary men. Ron knew he had to come get me when he wanted to further my education. So I stood there, like a blank canvas, and let Joni paint her world upon me.
Joni was wearing the same white snow queen dress as the first night we met. She was playing Little Green, then Night In The City, then Play Little David, and finally, The Circle Game. By the middle of Circle Game, we were all chiming in four part harmony to the chorus. That's when I first saw Joni give us a wide open, almost gonna cry, big smile. I'm sure we looked like a bunch of college kids crammed into a phone booth, with heads sticking out between arms, legs, and torsos, smiling and singing, "And the seasons they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down. We're captive on a carousel of time, we can't return we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round......" and we layered on rounds of round and rounds, like row, row, row your boat, in Baroque like, can't slip a razor between tight harmonies, the likes of which everyone would come to hear from Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Our voices made love to the air as we engulfed her in our hard won approval. We sent amends and celebration to her, standing not alone anymore on that tiny, red stage. She sang and smiled at us as though she were meeting a long lost friend at a train station...... the smile of a broken heart repairing.
I hadn't realized why Joni had not been smiling, or even that she wasn't smiling. The guys she and I worked with, and the extended community of opinionated "Grove Kid Hipsters", had to get past their presuppositions long enough to hear the new music she was doing. They were still mildly prejudiced against her from the time she and Chuck Mitchell performed, as a duo, at The Flick. I didn't see those performances because I was in school. I had only recently gotten permission to work weekends and holidays, but the very picky (pun intended) "Grove Kids" had little better to do than to occasionally quip about how Joni and Chuck didn't do well together. Of course, owner of the Flick, Max Launer, would have had a very big something to say as to whether or not she was worth her salary. So, he too must have heard with better ears. Even after Ron made all the musicians change their tune about her, the audience outside our artistic community was still not catching on. She was headlining the bill, and when she got up there, too many people would get up and leave. Few things are more disconcerting.
According to what is required to be a successful recording artist in the music business, Joni had done absolutely everything exactly right. She saw what everyone else was doing, and, with the visualization, right brained hemisphere skills, of an artist, created an entire world, a musical and physical persona, all her own. She took her own fingerprint and utilized its unique pattern to paint a masterpiece. Sure, I had an astonishing voice instrument, cultivated from infancy, and my father taught me how to learn with extreme alacrity, but the brilliant musicians in the Grove hand picked the best material for my voice, and taught me to play guitar as good as a man. I was their finely tuned instrument, who was taking everything in and remembering it; including all their daily behaviors and actions, of which I draw upon to write this now. Consequently, the audience that watched me grow, where watching me being taught by the best, and were in the palm of my teenage hand. I was their little darlin'. I came from generations of charisma, but I had not fully formed, and was doing what the experts knew would work. Joni had worked so hard to carve herself in gemstone, and here comes this 15 year old rendering all her efforts for naught. Or so she thought at the time.
It was not until the following week that I learned she was so crest fallen at the audience's lack of response, she stormed out of the Flick after her last set. Her guitar in hand, she walked the entire two miles from the Flick, on the edge of Coral Gables, back to the Grove. Surely she knew that, unlike New York, taxi cabs do not roam the streets of South Florida, looking for costumers. She was staying in the spare room at Vince Martin's little jungle house, cozily situated next to Biscayne Bay. The Flick was in a safe neighborhood, and Vince's place was in a paradise. However, she did not know that in between the Flick and the Grove was a neighborhood locked in the ravenous desperation only unspeakable prejudice and oppression could produce. Florida was still a segregated state.
I don't for one minute think that there were violent criminals lurking in every shadow of the other side of paradise. Let's just say her blond beauty, and fine clothes, were a big neon sign pointing a big arrow at a valuable guitar, in a valuable hard-shell case. Like it wasn't considered wise, cool, or polite, to carry a big wad of hundred dollar bills in your hand, at 1:30 AM, where people fail to fall asleep hungry. Fortunately, Joni had no idea she was not supposed to go through there. She didn't know that "it just wasn't done". She harbored none of the fear that would have attracted malice. And she walked right through; in her own thoughts of her own wasted efforts on my audience. She was walking like a truck, thinking about how to turn it around and solve the problem. She was burning the rubber in her heels to get rid of all that frustration. She was an untouchable silver streak in the night, one could only wish upon.
In the following days, everyone was still chattering about what Joni had done. They told me like they were parents admonishing a child not to do what her playmate had done. I didn't know what to think, so I focussed on performing my next set. I wouldn't know why she stormed out until some time later. I also didn't know that five years later I'd find myself walking down a dark and dangerous street in New York City, dressed to the nines, with my expensive guitar in hand. I was safe for another reason than Joni had, walking through the wrong side of paradise. In my mind, I was not carrying my guitar, I took each step as I did when I was ten years old, taking a full grown elephant for a walk. You have to be very centered and powerful to get that much altruistic respect from such a large, intelligent being. And nobody messes with anyone walking an elephant.
When I next saw Joni, after her "dangerous" episode, she had solved the problem of trying to win over my audience. She was calm and open, and for the first time, presented the big sister warmth that would mark the tone of our friendship. She approached me in between sets and, with all her soft, high, Saskatoooonian oooos, said almost exactly this, "You know, Estrella, I really do like what you do, and I think some of my songs would really be good for you. They're not very hard to learn, and you play guitar a lot better than me. Let me show you how easy they are." I distinctly recall her saying, "some of my songs would be very good for you". It was the operative closer line. She didn't say word one about it until she could say it in such a way that would work. Consequently, I obediently slipped into my student mode.
At the drop of any good musician's hat, I would become a student, as if my hands were folded on my desk, obediently ready to learn real fast. It had not occurred to me to ask her to teach me her songs. In the Grove, when someone wrote their own song, it usually meant they wrote it to sing themselves. I had no idea she thought I would be making a record before she did. Recording an album was the farthest thing from my mind. I had no concept for an album; it was all I could do to do these gigs and get through school every week. Joni solved her problem of not getting through to my audience by putting on her songwriter's hat. If you can't beat 'em, get 'em to record your songs. Just focus on success, in all it's permutations. That's how both Joni and I arrived where we were, looking at each other.
She led me to the pantry, a tiny room near the back door, and we sat on a couple of boxes, our guitars cradled on our laps. First she showed me how to change the tuning of my guitar, then she showed me the principle fingering shapes for that tuning. It was something like: the one is like an E chord shape, the third interval is this shape, open gets you back, and the five is like this. Got it right away. She put the chord structures to her song, Night In The City. She had the lyrics written out already, so it took abooot 10 or 15 minutes for us to be playing the whole song, together.
It was the first of many times we would sit inside each other's creativity. That night, I sat in her creative living room. Other times, she'd visit my creative home. We also liked exploring unknown territory, like a couple of girls on a shopping spree. Because of our age difference, she had the slight separation of a close, older sister. Used to having an older brother, it was a very natural, comfortable distance for me.
After the next show, she taught me, Play Little David. Her problem with my audience was solved. She turned it around, and round, and I learned two more songs to harmonize, along with the Circle Game. She had just turned 22, and I was but 15. I would have dismissed any thought that I was a child, and Joni felt her few years like Methuselah. But, it really had been just yesterday that a child came out to wander.
"A Child Came Out To Wander, Part 2"
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